Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, shown here in this photo on Dec. 31, 2014, is tasked to lead the Presidential Working Unit and to provide strategic information to the president. (Antara Photo/Prasetyo Utomo)

Examining Luhut's Role in Presidential Working Unit


JANUARY 05, 2015

President Joko Widodo's administration has managed to establish stability over the past three months, but public dissatisfaction over his new policies continues.

Joko recently inaugurated Luhut Binsar Panjaitan as his chief of staff, in a position that is equal to that of a minister.

Luhut is tasked to lead the Presidential Working Unit (UKP) and to provide strategic information to the president, helping Joko to design political communication between institutions and identify strategic issues.

No matter how strong or well grounded a government may be, it will never be free from issues that may hamper, or slow down, the decision-making process as well as the execution of decisions. Joko's government is no exception.

Luhut's appointment is perhaps meant to anticipate and manage any matters, both inside and outside the cabinet, which could create confusion, or prevent the execution of policy and strategic communications between institutions.

Perhaps the main challenge the Joko administration, and thus Luhut's office, may face down the road is when and how to identify strategic issues emanating from both inside and outside the country.

There are many cases of governments collapsing because they were unable to cope with, resist, or deter strategic issues they were facing.

The collapse of most governments in Eastern Europe immediately after the end of the Cold War is a good example. But a case much closer to home is the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998.

Due to Luhut's extensive experience in the realm of politics, Joko expects him to be able craft a good strategy to communicate with other institutions and to be able to identify strategic issues confronted by the government.

However, other state bureaucracies and institutions may be annoyed and even feel threatened if Luhut's office went beyond its mandated tasks and intervene in the operational programs of ministries, causing the heads of these ministries to adopt a hostile attitude towards Luhut's office.

Should this happen, what one may see in the process would not be systematic and well-coordinated strategic communication, but unorganized flows of communication instead.

The worst-case scenarios would be if each of these ministries fail to achieve their policy programs.

The big question about Luhut's newly created post is whether it can develop a strategy that can help the government to systematically detect and identify strategic issues the country will be facing in the next five years. A further question is how it will handle these issues without creating any "turbulence" or chaotic communication within the branches of government.

This suggests that it is imperative for Luhut's office to equip itself with a strong team of experts and professionals who have all the required instincts to identify those strategic issues and to assess the impact they may have on the country.

A good strategy takes more than just a strong desire to develop it. A good strategy requires proper input and analysis from those with proven expertise in such policy areas.

But not only that. It also requires good decision making by the government. It is a significant step in the strategic planning process that deals with answering the "big strategic questions" the country may face.

With Joko in command for the next five years, the country will be seen as a living organism that has to adapt to the changing environment — domestic and international. There will definitely be shared, if not mixed, expectations as the government proceeds with its new tasks.

The first expectation is that President Joko should constantly drive the country to move toward a fully fledged and a vibrant democracy.

But poor strategic communications between institutions may not only ruin, but halt, the country's democratic processes.

The second expectation is that, as the president has publicly promised during his election campaign, the government will be doing its utmost to strengthen Indonesia's economic foundations and thus can resist whatever crisis it may face in future.

The third expectation may derive from the way the public, political institutions and politicians perceive the tasks of Luhut's office.

If Joko gives Luhut's office too much power, or the presidential chief of staff sees himself as Joko's primary political helper, there is a prospect for Luhut's office to be in the opposing side in respect of the public or other political institutions.

The fourth expectation is that Indonesia needs to maintain its international role despite the possibility of fresh domestic flash points that may result from the new president's policies that may be unpopular, such as on Papua, economic disparities, religious intolerance, and more.

The fifth and last expectation is that Joko's government will have to address challenges resulting from the links between domestic and international issues in a way that will reflect the government's sensitivity and awareness to policy issues that occur during the next five years.

These five expectations will not only serve as parameters to judge where the country is heading, but also how Joko's government will properly and effectively deal with pressing future domestic and international strategic issues.

Those expectations may, or may not change, depending on how feasible and acceptable Joko's mission, vision and concepts are, as well as how responsive the government may be on certain strategic issues and the perception of the public.

Nobody can predict what will become the most influential and pressing issues Joko's government may face, domestically and internationally.

Luhut's office therefore should be able to identify strategic issues most likely to be faced by the government down the road.

It should know that strategic issues are fundamental policy questions or critical challenges that effect the government's mandate, missions and values.

It is an unresolved question needing a decision or waiting for a clarifying future event.

It is of strategic importance and will have a major impact on the course and direction of the government .

In his inauguration speech as president, Joko said clearly that he will do his utmost to address unresolved national issues by employing appropriate strategy depending on the nature of the issues. The post of chief of staff may not have been on Joko's mind at that time.

If Joko is to make the best use of Luhut's office, then he should press and demand without reservation that the Presidential Working Unit's operational program should be based on a perfect understanding and awareness of the current as well as future strategic issues.

Strategic issues after all lie at the heart of the government policy programs.

Correspondingly, the process of dealing with future domestic and international strategic issues lies right at the heart of the government's strategic planning.

A big test case will be whether Luhut's office has the expertise, capabilities and commitment to do what it is mandated to do and whether Luhut himself has the knowledge that successful identification and resolution of strategic issues results from combining content and process elements.

The consequences of Luhut's office failing to address and identify pressing current and future strategic issues will not only result in negative perceptions by other ministries and institutions towards the Presidential Working Unit but it will also lead the UKP to nowhere.

Bantarto Bandoro is senior lecturer at the School of Defense Strategy, Indonesian Defense University, in Sentul, Bogor.